I am a huge animal lover. I love all animals, but one of my favorites is the Whooping Crane. These cranes are extremely endangered and they will soon be extinct if no one does anything to help them. But fortunately, someone is doing something to help them. Before I get into that, let me tell you a little bit about their history.
About 71 years ago, Whooping Cranes were critically endangered. In fact these birds where so endangered that you could count all of the Whooping cranes in the world on you fingers and toes. There were only 15 left in the whole world. Some of the main reasons that they were
disappearing so rapidly was because of hunting. Whooping Cranes are five feet tall (they are the largest flying bird of North America) and they have beautiful, long, white feathers. At this time, wearing feathers in hats was one of the latest fashions. The cranes were heavily hunted for this reason.
Another reason why they were disappearing was because the number of people in American was expanding. Whooping Cranes live in wetlands and all of the wetlands were being drained so there was more room to build fields to grow food for the expanding population of people.
Another species of crane is the Sandhill Crane. Sandhill Cranes were also faced with this problem, although maybe not so severely. Sandhill cranes also lived in wetlands, but they were very good at adapting to other environments. This is something that Whooping cranes are not good at. The Sandhills started to live in grasslands and cornfields. Sandhills are now the most abundant species of crane.
Whooping Cranes are not good at adapting to different environments, so they were (and still are) in a lot of trouble. People started realizing this and decided there was something they needed to do about it.
There were many different experiments to see if they could bring these birds back. People would capture the eggs and put them in Sandhill Crane nests to see if the Sandhill Cranes would raise the chicks as their own. There were some problems with this experiment. The Whooping Cranes would imprint on the Sandhill Cranes and they would start to think that they were Sandhill Cranes. They would then mate with them producing half Whooping Crane and half Sandhill Crane.
While this was happening there was a man named William (Bill) Lishman. He started experimenting with Canada Geese. He would hatch the eggs and the first thing that the chicks would see would be him. The geese would them imprint on the Bill, or in other words, think that Bill was
their parent. Bill raised the chicks, and when it came time for them to migrate, Bill would do something extraordinary. He had built an ultralight that resembled a goose, and he would lead the flock of geese to their wintering grounds with this ultralight. When the cold weather would pass, the flock of geese would return to the place they were raised with no help from anyone. Once they had learned the migration path once from the ultralight, they never forgot it and they would migrate year after year by themselves.
This was an incredible experiment and it was very successful. Other people got involved in it and they started brainstorming. If they could do this with Canada Geese, then why couldn’t they try it with other birds such as the endangered Trumpeter Swan, or the Whopping Crane?
They did not want to jump right into this project with these highly endangered birds for fear of losing any of them. In 2000 they decided to try this experiment with a more common species of crane, the Sandhill Crane. They lead 11 Sandhill Cranes all the way from Wisconsin to Florida. The cranes over wintered in Florida and when spring came around, the cranes did just what everyone was hoping they would do. They migrated back up to Wisconsin to the place that they were raised all on there own! They had the migration path memorized and the Sandhill Cranes continued to migrate on this same path year after year with no help from the ultralights!
Because this experiment was so successful with the Sandhill Cranes, the pilots decided it was time to try it with Whooping Cranes.
In 2001 they decided to start this long and dangerous journey of trying to reintroduce Whooping Cranes into the wild. To start this project, they first needed the cranes. The chicks hatch at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Patuxent, Maryland. The eggs are taken from captive bred Whooping Cranes and are then hatched in an incubator. 11 eggs were hatched in the first year of the migration at in Patuxent. As soon as the chicks are born they are taken care of by people in all white costumes with a puppet that looks just like a crane head on one arm. The crane
puppet has a trigger in it that can open the beak and drop little bits of food for the chicks. The costumes are supposed to resemble Whooping Cranes. This way the chicks will imprint on the costumes and think that they are cranes and not people. If the chicks saw humans all of their life
The crane and crane costume.
they would think they were humans. If the human imprinted cranes were ever released into the wild what would happen to them? They would not be scared of people and this could lead to very easy picking for hunters.
It is very important that the chicks are never exposed to humans. This means that the people in the costumes cannot talk, laugh, sneeze, or anything else that humans would do. Instead, they have to flap their arms, and play recordings of grown cranes to the chicks. The chicks can have no knowledge that they are surrounded by people.
When the cranes are still very young, they are put in crates and flown to the Necedah wildlife refuge in Necedah, Wisconsin. This is where they will learn to follow the ultralight, learn to fly and that is where they will leave on their way for migration. This is the place that the cranes will come back to every spring.
As the cranes get bigger, they start to be trained to follow an ultralight. Someone with a costume drives the ultralight around and plays recording of adult cranes to try to get the chicks to follow them. When the chicks start to fly, they follow the ultralight around in small loops around the training facility. When they leave for migration they might need to fly as many as 100 miles a day.
Migration time usually comes around October. The migration is probably the hardest part of raising the cranes. First of all the crane handlers have to trace out the migration route. Next, they have to find places for the cranes to stop and rest throughout their route. These places are called stopovers. If the weather does not cooperate the crew and cranes can be stuck at a stopover for days or even weeks. So as you can imagine, these
Following the ultralight
stopovers are very important. The stopovers have to A) be far away from people, cars, roads, anything that involves people. B) Have room for the campers that the crew has to stay in. and C) have a grass stretch that the ultralight and take off from. To find these places the crane handlers have to drive down the migration path and literally go knocking door to door to see if they can stay on peoples land. Luckily they have found people all the way down the migration path that let the cranes stay on their land year after year.
The length of the migration depends almost entirely on the weather. They have to have absolutely perfect weather to fly. No fog, rain, wind and it can’t be too hot. If the weather is any of these things, they have to stay at the stopover for another day.
Along with the pilots and ultralights in the air, they also have a ground crew. All of the cranes have radio transmitters on their legs so that the crew can follow them if the crane strays away from the flock. This is the ground crews job. They follow along on the ground with their trackers for any cranes that stray away. If this does happen and the crane just refuses to fly with the rest of the flock, then the ground crew can put the crane in a crate and drive it to the next stopover to meet up with the rest of their flock.
The cranes migrate from Necedah down to Chassahowitza in Florida. The migration time depends almost entirely on the weather. Some migrations can go very smoothly and others, not so much. This past year the cranes were not able to finish the migration (I will talk more about the present migration in a future post.)
The pen they stay in at night in Florida
When the cranes get down to Chassahowitza the cranes are introduced to their wintering grounds. They stay on an island five miles offshore, in a closed to the public refuge. There is a 4 acre predator proof pen that the cranes are free to come and go from. At night the cranes are moved into a top netted pen. This pen is alligator safe and bobcat safe.
They have a monitoring team that checks them twice a day. They refill the food and water, make sure the cranes are healthy, check for predators
nearby and many other things. This monitoring team puts the cranes in the pen at night. They are always dressed in their crane costume.
In the spring, when the cranes internal alarm clocks go off, they start their journey back north. They no longer need the ultralights leading them because they learned the route on the way down. Just from one migration down, the cranes will remember the migration path for the rest of their life’s.
There is so much more to this remarkable story that I could not fit into just one blog post. If you want more information, then you can visit these sites:
This post is written mainly about past migrations. Many things have changed over the years. These including a new wintering spot in Florida, a new migration path, an un-ended migration, and an awful tragedy in 2006. In the future I will write up a post about all of these things, but if you would like information sooner, please visit the website links.